Helen, 32 and barely holding her New York City life together, is in the middle of an Ikea couch delivery when she gets a call from her uncle in Milwaukee. Her adoptive brother has just committed suicide Shocked she collapses on the new furniture and between sobs she comes up with a plan.
Helen will go and investigate the death of her brother. So she travels to her estranged adoptive family in Milwaukee to make sense of it all. She talks to a few people, tries to reconnect with her family and be of use to them in this dark time. She fails miserably on almost all accounts but mostly on reconnecting with her family.
I haven’t really read a novel about estrangement in the family but this seemed to be on point. Helen and her parents have lost all common ground, they are strangers to each other, each with their own agenda, unable or unwilling to bring these together. Through the course of the novel however it becomes clear that Helen might not be the most reliable narrator, especially not when it comes to judging other peoples feelings. She starts off as a very emotional and caring character but the better the reader gets to know her, the more screwed up she becomes. She is definitely an entertaining antihero, unable to navigate through life. She dresses in shoes she found in the garbage, buys drugs for the troubled youth in her position as counsellor and ruins every interpersonal relationship by not being able to interpret emotions properly.
The novel waffles between being very funny and extremely claustrophobic. Sometimes I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to feel or if I could trust Helen in her judgement of the situation. The novel could be read as either a satire on being a narcissistic and (undiagnosed) mentally ill person with or it could be read as the struggle of a daughter trying to reconnect with her adoptive parents.
I felt that I got a lot out of this novel, I liked how nuanced the writing was how it is up to me to attribute the appropriate emotions. Hopefully I’ll be better at this than Helen.
Emily Ruskovich’s genre defying debut Idaho is a gruesome crime novel, psychological character story, mystery novel, medical drama and love story all in one. I know, it sounds like a lot but in most of the categories, Ruskovich actually delivers. So what aspect of this novel should I focus on? Basic plotline: the parents, Jenny and Wade, and their two daughters June and May live a pretty normal live in the mountains of Idaho, until one day a horrific event changes everything. Jenny kills her youngest daughter with a machete while the family is on a trip to get wood for the winter. June, who witnesses the event, runs away out of fear and has not been seen since that day. Jenny is sentenced to life in prison. Wade marries again but his new wife Ann soon also has to take on the role as caretaker, as Wade is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. All these facts we learn pretty early on, so the book is not so much about the plot but about the rational behind it and the characters who are living it.
The story is told from varying perspectives; we get to hear from Jenny in prison, from Wade, his new wife Ann and a younger May. Despite this diversity of voices, we don’t get a proper explanation for why the murder happened nor do we hear from June after the day of the crime. This is where I am left unsure about how I feel about the novel. I do find parts of the way the story is told very unusual and I like how certain events are left open for interpretation but I was also infuriated at times about how little information we get. I know this is a bit of a paradox but I don’t know how to explain it better. What I found most captivating about the novel is also what disturbed me the most. Why would a mother just kill her child out of the blue without any reason? Where is June? Was it really Jenny who did this?
The longer I think about it, the more difficult it becomes for me to decide if I think this is a “good” novel. The writing is absolutely beautiful and Ruskovich creates a dense and imaginative literary version of Idaho that totally blew me away. At the same time though I felt like something was missing. Whether this was an intentional comment by Roskovich on how crimes like these always remain in some ways incomprehensible to those left behind, I don’t know. But I felt like I could read something of that sort in between the lines:
Jenny’s absence seems to describe her better than her presence does; she is a looming vessel of her own withholding.
Maybe she left things open so that we would get to make up our own theories and indeed, I developed a few of those. It was intriguing to keep imagining different reasoning for the actions of characters. So I’m still somehow unsure. Impressed but unsure.
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey is an experimental noir novel set in Brazil. The plot is centered on the disappearance of the fictitious Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda. Coming to terms with her gambling problems and hunted by loan sharks she climbs up a tree in the middle of a town and is not seen again. Now it is up to her grown children and American translator Emma to find her. Using the literary work of Beatriz and their combined wit they are not only trying to solve her mysterious disappearance but also the puzzles of their own lives, lived in the shadow of a literary genius.
The novel has a classic pulp plot filled with fast paced action and gangsters waiting in dark alleys but it also gets a good dose of magic realism, Brazilian atmosphere and feminist romance. It is like a noir novel on LSD. Novey uses multiple perspectives, transcriptions from radio, personalized dictionary entries and interviews to add to her very personal style. Even the way the pages are set is very unique, sometimes there are just a few words on the page. All these unique stylistic features point to the fact that Idra Novey is actually a poet and Ways to Disappear is her debut novel. I really liked that I could see poetry in her work, it gave her a whole extra creative dimension to work with. She also had interesting themes that she explored through the novel like the art of translation, how places can change you and the strange relationship between those who create art and those who consume it. I thought it was a great novel that entertained and delivered a critical framework around that entertainment.
The novel is set in 1995. Selin the daughter of Turkish immigrants is attending her first year at Harvard. She studies Russian, Language and Art and falls in love with her Hungarian classmate Ivan. Somewhat accidentally they begin to write Emails to each other. When in the second half of the novel Ivan goes to Hungary for the summer, Selin follows him there to teach English and see the Europe.
The novel has a lot of smart observations on culture, language, art, gender and love but since most of them are voiced through Selin, an extremely naïve young woman, they also sometimes made me cringe. And it felt strange to me that someone who has read so much (she makes a point of discussing the works of Mann, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky) could be so clueless when coming face to face with the real world. It’s an interesting point I guess how a character can be smart and an idiot at the same time. While I was reading the novel I was hoping that some sort of change would take place and through having all these new experiences Selin would maybe get her act together and realize what an idiot Ivan is. Minor spoiler – this doesn’t happen.
Batuman sets a distinct tone for this novel. She wrote parts of it already 20 years ago, which to me made it feel all the more real. It is a detailed depiction of this very specific time when communication went through a phase of major change. Because she rewrote her writing from 20 years ago today, this makes it all the more interesting. Her nostalgia is informed by a contemporary mind-set.
To me I have difficulty voicing an opinion on this novel, I really liked the first part that was set in America depicting college life and love in the 90’s but I couldn’t really connect with the character that she encountered on her trip to Europe. This second part generally felt rushed (too many new character) and too long (didn’t care about the new characters) at the same time. I felt like a lot could and should have been edited out. This quote that I took from the book actually sums it up nicely:
“Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book.”
Home Fire is a modern retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone, so the story is pretty densely packed with timeless themes like love, fidelity and civil disobedience. But the author put a modern spin on it and set the story in the middle of modern British politics. What made it a little difficult for me though, was the fact that the story is told from five different points of view and I actually could only connect with one or two of the characters. I still think it is an important novel that touches on a lot of the more difficult topics that British society is facing today, like immigration, dual citizenship, terrorism and racism. Although I had my difficulties with the book, I would recommend reading it because it left me thoughtful for days and made me question a lot of my own opinions on these issues.
I had read this novel in school when I was about 17. Back then I didn’t really like it. Now, being a little older, it speaks to me more. The novel focuses on the engineer Walter Faber and how he gets to know a woman that he does not know is his daughter. Faber is hunted by many memories; he has lost the love of his life, as well as an old friend and seems to be wondering aimlessly through his life. To the outside world he has created a facade of a man without many struggles or feelings but inside he is confused, cynical and sometimes lonely. When he then meets his daughter, their life stories become irrevocably intertwined until a tragic accident shatters their momentary happiness. As you probably can tell already this novel deals with many heavy themes and is overall a rather uncomfortable read. It illustrates the messy lives of the characters, each one at the mercy of chance with no way to protect themselves or the ones they love. I would definitely recommend it though as it felt very “real” to me. The language Frisch uses is beautifully minimalistic and sometimes surprisingly creative (I read it in German) and the issues that Faber struggles with, like identity, loss and regret are issues we will all have to face at some point in our lives.
Teju Cole travels back to visit his hometown Lagos in Nigeria after living in the States for fifteen years. He gets off the plane, faces dirt, poverty and corruption but also memories from his past.
Through short vignettes, the author creates a vibrant portrait of the city’s culture, its infrastructure, customs and traditions. The first night he arrives, the power goes out and he lies in the dark, the noise of generators filling the neighbourhood. It sets the tone for this book, which is an account of what he experiences during his stay. These accounts are like searchlights illuminating different and sometimes violent aspects of the city. Ranging from corruption and economic realities to the treatment of the history of slavery, Cole looks at many fragments that make up this city. He visits his first girlfriend, goes to museums, bookshops and concerts. As he travels through the city we also get a sense of how he sees his home after a long absence. America has changed him and therefore his perception of Nigeria. As a reader I found this very interesting, not only does it touch on themes of national identity, immigration and belonging but it also gave me a self-reflected insight view into Lagos life.
Even though I have read novels by Nigerian authors before, this particular book helped me understand and see some of the issues the inhabitants of this city face much clearer. The reality of being an artist in Lagos is something that I haven’t read about before. The struggles that people face on a daily basis, the violence and noise, the sheer amount of people takes a toll on everyone and it becomes a difficult setting in which to create art. This made me see other Nigerian books in a very different light. I could appreciate their accomplishments even more.
I lie in bed, on my back, wearing only boxer shorts, enduring the late afternoon’s damp heat. I have headphones on, and I am listening to “Giant Steps” […]. It is at high volume , but the generators say, No, you will not enjoy this. I have no right to Coltrane here, not with everything else going on. This is Lagos. I disagree, turn the volume up, listen to both the music and the noise. Neither gives way. No sense emerges of the combat between art and messy reality.